Felicity Jones Armie Hammer Justin Theroux Kathy Bates Sam Waterston Cailiee Spaeney
Two mind-boggling aspects of the film, set between the 1950’s and 1970’s, are the number of U.S. laws that favored men over women and the obstructions a gifted woman like Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced throughout most of her young career. Beginning with law school at Harvard, throughout her attempts to get a law firm to hire her, and her attempts to bring up and hold onto a major case about gender discrimination, men talk over her and the other women, disparage their comments, and often simply ignore them. It’s a puzzle in their circles as to why RBG and her husband mix up their typical gender roles, e.g., her taking the lead in arguing a case, him taking on household and child care chores, and, above all, sharing in all their responsibilities at home and in their profession.
One prospective employer at a respectable law firm in New York expresses his admiration and respect for her (who graduated first in her class, even after helping her husband through law school while she was also enrolled, AND took care of their child), but he doesn’t hire her because the wives in the firm might get jealous. (Actually, I was told exactly that and was turned down for the same reason when I was applying for my first job as a psychologist in 1979.) RBG finally lands a job at Rutgers teaching “Sex Discrimination and the Law.”
On the Basis of Sex provides us with an excellent dramatic account of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, from the time she was a girl up to her winning a major case at the Denver Court of Appeals. It follows the prior release of a fine documentary, RBG, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, earlier this year. At first, I regretted their releasing the two films so close together in time, but after having seen both, I see them as complementary.
This film, written by Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, balances RBG’s personal background—including adult family life—with arguments among colleagues and those formally presented in court. By the end, we have a clear sense of how this woman came to be (influence of her mother), the almost unprecedented degree of support from her husband Marty, and her forging a new pathway through a male-dominated legal system to achieve what is now perceived to be obvious rights for women. I especially appreciated hearing some of her arguments in court, which were presented in a way that only logic is needed to understand it—knowledge of law not needed.
In addition, the film portrays the Ginsburg family’s actual life, such as arguments between RBG and her daughter that were expertly moderated by Marty Ginsburg. As portrayed here, he could be a model for a father’s role in conflicts between a mother and her daughter. The film captures the Ginsburgs’ marital relationship, which was apparently always loving, but open to conflict and differences of opinion. Marty is clearly a peacemaker but one with principles and loyalty to both his wife and daughter.
As she did as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Felicity Jones captures the charming spunkiness of a woman who is well grounded. She conveys just the right blend of feminine charm, fierce commitment, and solid logical mind that characterizes heroic women. Armie Hammer is a master of supporting roles—for male or female characters—of all different kinds, as he has shown here, and I’m wondering when he will play a starring role; he is clearly capable. A real winning actor here is Kathy Bates as the irascible Dorothy Kenyon, a determined social justice advocate. This is a perfect role for Bates who should receive a supporting actor nomination.
A film that addresses equality between men and women with grace. Thank you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.